Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
December 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 4

Research Matters / What Skills Do Students Really Need for a Global Economy?

author avatar
We may have a skills gap—but not the one we think.

Instructional Strategies
Research Matters / What Skills Do Students Really Need for a Global Economy? thumbnail
After spending time in a competitive, crowded, and climate change-ravaged world, writer Thomas Friedman (2005) found himself telling his daughters, "Finish your homework—people in China and India are starving for your jobs." Dire warnings from Friedman and others, coupled with a rash of test score data showing that U.S. students are falling behind their international peers, have led business groups to sound the alarm about a "skills gap"—largely in STEM fields, where they project a shortfall of 5 million workers by 2020.
Business leaders largely blame the K–12 education system for failing to prepare students for the realities of a hypercompetitive global economy (Business Roundtable, 2014). So we're now awash in STEM-focused initiatives, such as the Obama administration's Educate to Innovate program and Alaska Airlines's $1 million donation to a science and engineering program to educate Alaskan schoolchildren (Ossola, 2014).
Recently, however, critics have begun to question whether pushing STEM on U.S. kids is warranted. After all, some countries that outperform us in math and science have done so while placing little specific emphasis on STEM. Moreover, as political scientist Andrew Hacker (2012) has observed, given that only 5 percent of entry-level jobs require proficiency in algebra, by making algebra mandatory for students, we're overemphasizing needless skills—and creating a barrier for students who might otherwise finish school and contribute to the global economy.

Skills Gap—Myth or Reality?

So do we have a skills gap? And if so, what should we do about it?
Economist Paul Krugman (2014) has blasted the skills gap notion as "a zombie idea … that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die" (p. A21). He notes that the current ratio of unfilled jobs to unemployed workers is "far below normal." Moreover, an analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (Shierholz, 2014) found that unemployment rates have spiked for workers at all levels of education, which refutes the idea that unemployment rates might go down if workers' education levels went up.
After synthesizing several key reports, Peter Capelli of the Wharton School of Business (2014) concluded that there's no evidence of serious skills gaps in the workforce. On the contrary, average workers may actually be more educated than their job requires. Employers who complain they cannot attract talent might simply not be paying enough. Both Capelli and Krugman assert that there may be an ulterior motive when business groups sound this alarm: keeping visas for migrant workers high and wages for skilled workers low.
Yet there may be a more nuanced kind of gap. Many employers are already quietly paying more for top talent, as evidenced by the rise in wages for the top 10 percent of workers in key fields while average wages in those fields have stagnated (Bessen, 2014). For example, while pay remains flat overall for graphic designers, it has risen steadily for designers with web and mobile platform skills. The same pattern holds true for software programmers. In a global economy, the requirements of jobs may change so quickly that the real shortage may be in, as economist James Bessen puts it, "non-cognitive skills that allow people to excel at learning on the job."
A survey of 343 executives of U.S. companies (Labi, 2014) found that the skill deemed most important for new hires was "critical thinking and problem-solving" (identified by 72 percent of executives), followed by collaboration and teamwork (63 percent), and communication (54 percent). The skill least valued? Applied mathematics. These data bolster Hacker's claims that we're overemphasizing algebra and teaching students the wrong kind of mathematics at the expense of ensuring that they master computational and problem-solving skills they will need.

A Gap in How STEM Is Taught?

Interestingly, a 2016 study by Logue, Watanabe-Rose, and Douglas found that college kids who were slated to be placed in remedial mathematics fared better when placed in more challenging statistics courses. Researchers presumed that the remedial courses forced students to repeat the same sort of disconnected-from-reality instruction that failed them in high school, whereas statistics, although more complex, is more practical and engaging.
Likewise, a trend in urban and high-tech enclaves across the United States—where a new generation of extracurricular math programs and competitions are producing world-class high school mathematicians—demonstrates that kids are capable of understanding dizzying levels of mathematics when they access that learning in a different way (Tyre, 2016). These programs use a problem-solving approach similar to that used in elite colleges like MIT. Teachers challenge students with open-ended, multifaceted situations that can be solved through different approaches.
That approach contrasts sharply with the teaching methods prevalent in U.S. classrooms. Video comparisons with other countries find that American teachers commonly downgrade complex, heuristic-type problems into simplistic, algorithmic tasks, turning intriguing challenges—like figuring out how to calculate the area of a triangle—into spoon-fed formulas (Stigler & Hiebert, 2004).

A Key Pivot

In the end, arguments over skills gaps, math myths, and the like may present a sucker's choice: To succeed in a global world, students likely need basic and applied knowledge, computational and creative thinking, and hard and soft skills. But perhaps the most important pivot we might make (with all due respect to Friedman) is to fret less about how our kids will compete in a flat, hot, and crowded world and more about how they can contribute to that world by solving complex problems. We might start by telling our kids to do their homework because their neighbors—locally and globally—are counting on them.
References

Bessen, J. (2014). Employers aren't whining—the "skills gap" is real. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review at https://hbr.org/2014/08/employers-arent-just-whining-the-skills-gap-is-real

Business Roundtable. (2014). Closing America's skills gap. Washington, DC: Author.

Capelli, P. (2014). Skill gaps, skill shortages, and skill mismatches: Evidence for the U.S. (NBER Working Paper 20382). Washington, DC: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Friedman, T. L. (2005, April 3). It's a flat world, after all. Retrieved from New York Times at www.nytimes.com/2005/04/03/magazine/its-a-flat-world-after-all.html

Hacker, A. (2012, July 29). Is algebra necessary? Retrieved from New York Times at www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html

Krugman, P. (2014, March 31). Jobs and skills and zombies. Retrieved from New York Times at www.nytimes.com/2014/03/31/opinion/krugman-jobs-and-skills-and-zombies.html

Labi, A. (2014). Closing the skills gap: Companies and colleges collaborating for change. Retrieved from www.luminafoundation.org/files/publications/Closing_the_skills_gap.pdf

Logue, A. W., Watanabe-Rose, M., & Douglas, D. (2016). Should students assessed as needing remedial mathematics take college-level quantitative courses instead? A randomized controlled trial. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(3), 578–598.

Ossola, A. (2014). Is the U.S. focusing too much on STEM? Retrieved from The Atlantic at www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/is-the-us-focusing-too-much-on-stem/383353

Shierholz, H. (2014). Is there really a shortage of skilled workers? Retrieved from www.epi.org/publication/shortage-skilled-workers

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (2004). Improving mathematics teaching. Educational Leadership, 61(5), 12–17.

Tyre, P. (2016). The math revolution. Retrieved from The Atlantic at www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/03/the-math-revolution/426855

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Instructional Strategies
How to Enhance Every Student's Voice
Naomi Thiers
1 month ago

undefined
Developing Self-Directed Learners by Design
Jay McTighe & Catlin Tucker
1 month ago

undefined
Independent Learning Was Amazing—Until It Wasn't
Kyle Redford
1 month ago

undefined
Writing by Choice
Lauren Katzman
1 month ago

undefined
Mastery Learning, Flipped
Jonathan Bergmann
1 month ago
Related Articles
How to Enhance Every Student's Voice
Naomi Thiers
1 month ago

Developing Self-Directed Learners by Design
Jay McTighe & Catlin Tucker
1 month ago

Independent Learning Was Amazing—Until It Wasn't
Kyle Redford
1 month ago

Writing by Choice
Lauren Katzman
1 month ago

Mastery Learning, Flipped
Jonathan Bergmann
1 month ago
From our issue
Product cover image 117040.jpg
The Global-Ready Student
Go To Publication